Weather Updates

Surf’s up on Lake Michigan thanks to Hurricane Sandy

Surfer Pete Lambert riding wave 57th Street Beach Monday October 29 2012 . |  John H. White~Sun-Times

Surfer Pete Lambert riding wave at 57th Street Beach, Monday, October 29, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 1, 2012 6:18AM

While the gales of Hurricane Sandy are causing millions of East Coast residents to stock up, hunker down or even evacuate their homes, for a few hundred hearty souls in Chicago and along the Lake Michigan shore, the storm’s arrival means only one thing: Surf’s up!

“These are the epic days you wait for,” said Larry Scharmota, owner of the Chicago Surf Shop. “What the charts are saying right now, is Thursday morning, probably, looking at the wind directions, Whiting, Indiana, probably. Our guys will be there at sunup.”

Others Monday weren’t waiting.

“I’m leaving to go get some waves right now and will be out over the next few days,” said Mike Killion, heading to 57th Street Beach to check out the situation. “Looks good til Thursday so we should get something good.”

“I’m definitely going out today,” said his friend, Mike Calabro. “I’m going out every day, if I can. Possibility two different spots — 57th street is the closest. If not there, Whiting, Indiana. It all depends on the way the wind and the waves are going.”

October is actually the start of high surf season on Lake Michigan — it’s usually too placid in the summer for good surfing, but between now and when the lakeshore ices over, wet-suit clad surfers take to the water.

While surfing Chicago beaches was illegal for a long time, for the past few years it is permitted at a number of spots during the summer, and between Labor Day and Memorial Day at four beaches: Osterman, Montrose, 57th and Rainbow. A Chicago surfer, Rex Flodstrom, made headlines last January for being arrested for illegal surfing — a misdemeanor — but that was at Oak Street.

He’s in Hawaii now, missing the fun.

“We don’t get good waves often, so it’s a special event when we do,” he emailed.

Hurricane Sandy caught many Chicago surf regulars elsewhere. The owner of the Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich., is surfing in San Diego. Calabro was in Hawaii last week, shooting photos of an Ironman triathlon there, and of course surfing. He found the waves there less awesome than in Illinois.

“It was a small day in Hawaii, and I was kind of shocked, thinking, ‘I’ve had better days on Lake Michigan,’ ” he said.

Lake surfing can take getting used to.

“I’ve been surfing Lake Michigan for 20 years,” Scharmota said. “It’s different. When you’re in the ocean, the waves break longer, it’s possible to get 100-yard ride. Lake Michigan’s waves are essentially big whitecaps, a completely different wave — heavy, short narrow. Not a nice long roller where you can do a bottom curve. When newbies come here from Hawaii or California or the East Coast, it takes three or four times before they start to get their chops up.”

Still, Lake Michigan does offer barrels — waves that break over you as you tuck inside.

“There are days you think you are on the ocean,” Scharmota said.

Freshwater is also not as buoyant as saltwater, which affects how your board rides a wave, and how deeply you are driven down if you wipe out. “I’ll tell you one thing, you get beat pretty hard in freshwater,” one surfer wrote in Surfer magazine in 2010, describing Lake Michigan. “It seems heavier and you don’t come up from hold-downs as quickly.”

If you aren’t an expert lake surfer, this is definitely not the week to learn.

“If anybody calls me up, I’d tell them not to go out on a day like [Tuesday],” said Mike Miller, owner of Eos Outdoors, a surfboard shop in Sheboygan, Wis., which has a vibrant surfing scene. “The wind’s too strong. The best time to go out is when the wind is dying, and the swells are still pumping from the fetch [the expanse of water wind blows over, creating swells] ... There’s going to be some guys going out, but it’s kind of pointless. You’re going to have to carry a board in a 50 mph wind. Most of us are going to wait until Wednesday or Thursday. I won’t even put any rentals out. I’m going to get guys who call, but I’ll tell them, if you don’t have the gear for this already, you shouldn’t be going out there, If you wait until Wednesday or Thursday, when the wind is dying down, it’ll be a better time to go out.”

“Once it gets too windy, waves turn into a giant washing machine,” agreed Calabro.

“We advise against it,” said Erroll Davis, commanding officer of the Chicago Police Marine Unit. “It’s very dangerous. We suggest you watch the waves from your TV set.”

Old hands are watching the weather, waiting for the right moment. “I’m getting emails from guys asking, ‘Can I bring my gun?’ ” said Scharmota [a “gun” being a surfboard with a pointy end used for surfing bigger waves].

It might be difficult to see these tremendous waves Tuesday and wait, but that’s the best thing to both keep alive and have fun.

“Patience is a virtue when it comes to lake surfing,” Miller said. “Tuesday is going to be just crazy, a crazy wind.”

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